What Are the Gnomic Present Tense Verbs?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Text of Heraclitus quote that reads "there is nothing permanent except change."
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In English grammar, the gnomic present is a verb in the present tense used to express a general truth without reference to time. The gnomic present is also called gnomic aspect and generic aspect. The gnomic present can often be found in maxims, proverbs, and aphorisms. The word "gnomic" comes from the Greek for "thought, judgment."

There is a difference between the gnomic present and the historical present.

Karen Raber, "Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England"

"The gnomic present reassures the reader that the history does not depart from received wisdom while the historic present suggests to the listener that its significance is relevant to the moment in which the story is told." 

Examples and Observations

  • A fool and his money are soon parted.
     
  • A penny saved is a penny earned.
     
  • A rising tide lifts all boats.
     
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss.
     
  • The secret of happiness is not to do what you like to do but to learn to like what you have to do.
     
  • The earth rotates on its axis every 24 hours and revolves around the sun once every year.

Quotes About the Gnomic Present Tense

Joan Bybee, Revere Perkins, and William Pagliuca, "The Evolution of Grammar"

"Another use that 'Present Tenses' sometimes have is...in timeless or generic statements, such as 'elephants have trunks.' Such statements are true in the past, present, and future — as long as elephants exist.

The usual term for this meaning is gnomic present."

"Gnomic: the situation described in the proposition is generic; the predicate has held, holds, and will hold for the class of entities named by the subject."

Deirdre N. McCloskey, "The Rhetoric of Economics"

"Economic style appeals in various ways to an ethos worthy of belief.

For example, a test claiming authority uses the 'gnomic present,' as in the sentence you are reading now, or in the Bible, or repeatedly in the historian David Landes's well-known book on modern economic growth, 'The Unbound Prometheus.' Thus, in one paragraph on p. 562, 'large-scale, mechanized manufacture requires not only machines and buildings...but...social capital...These are costly because the investment required is lumpy...The return on such investment is often long deferred.' Only the last sentences of the paragraph connect the rest to the narrative past: 'the burden has tended to grow.'"

"The advantage of the gnomic present is its claim to the authority of General Truth, which is another of its names in grammar..."

"The disadvantage is that it sidesteps whether it is asserting a historical fact...or a general truth...or perhaps merely a tautology."

H. Tsoukas and C. Knudsen, "The Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory"

"What are the advantages of the use of the gnomic present?...Partly, it has to do with ethos: both [the] Bible and folklore wisdom favor the gnomic present. Partly, it is a matter of [a] special kind of logos. There is no base on which to contest a statement in gnomic present.

Any sentence situated in real time and place can be contested as to its validity: there are other witnesses, or at least there are counter-examples from different places and times. Not so with the gnomic present, which is situated no-place in no-time."

Quote Using Gnomic Present

Charles Dickens, "Barnaby Rudge"

"A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from, or whither it goes, few men can tell. Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself."

Sheldon Cooper, "The Lizard-Spock Expansion," " The Big Bang Theory"

"Scissors cuts paper, paper covers rock, rock crushes lizard, lizard poisons Spock, Spock smashes scissors, scissors decapitates lizard, lizard eats paper, paper disproves Spock, Spock vaporizes rock, and as it always has, rock crushes scissors."

Sources

Bybee, Joan, et al. "The Evolution of Grammar: Tense, Aspect, and Modality in the Languages of the World." 1st Edition, University of Chicago Press, November 15, 1994.
Dickens, Charles. "Barnaby Rudge." Kindle edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, May 12, 2012.
Landes, D.S. "The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from 1750 to the Present." 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, July 14, 2003.
McCloskey, Deirdre N. "The Rhetoric of Economics (Rhetoric of the Human Sciences)." 2nd Edition, University of Wisconsin Press, April 15, 1998.
Raber, Karen. "Ashgate Critical Essays on Women Writers in England, 1550-1700: Volume 6: Elizabeth Cary." 1st Edition, Routledge, May 15, 2017.
"The Lizard-Spock Expansion." The Big Bang Theory. CBS, 2008. Television.
Tsoukas, Haridimos (Editor). "The Oxford Handbook of Organization Theory: Meta-theoretical Perspectives (Oxford Handbooks)." Christian Knudsen (Editor), 1st Edition, Oxford University Press, May 29, 2003.